Carnival in Cairo Quilt

Where this project started…

One evening last winter my partner sent me a link to this webpage with a collection of intriguing pentagonal tilings and a wonderful, inspirational story behind their discovery.

The story is that of a woman, Marjorie Rice, who, despite having had just a basic high school math education, got positively obsessed by pentagonal tilings after reading an article in a popular science magazine. She invented her own notation system and discovered several novel tilings.

A pentagonal tiling (or tessellation) is a tiling of the plane made from pentagons, i.e. a polygon with five corners. Imagine trying to cover a floor with a mosaic made from little polygonal tiles. A square can be used to simply tile a plane in a cartesian grid. However, tiling the plane with pentagons is less trivial. In fact, only 15 types of (convex) pentagons are known to tile the plane. Some of these tilings look rather organic and intriguing, yet they are made of repeated shapes. This is what made me interested in trying to use one of these tessellation in a quilt design.

Inspiration from the streets of Cairo

While researching different pentagonal tilings, I came across the so called Cairo tiling. Several streets in Cairo are paved using this tiling, which has led to the name. In my opinion it is not the most beautiful pentagonal tiling, however, it had a number of interesting features that made it attractive as a basis for a quilt design:

  1. It is relatively regular, which simplifies the quilt construction.
  2. It can be seen as a combination of two hexagonal tilings.
  3. It is the dual of the so called snub square tiling, with is constructed from squares and triangles.

The latter means that a Cairo tiling can be constructed from other, simpler shapes. This was a major selling point for me, because I couldn’t imagine an easy way to precisely cut out all those pentagons. But besides this practical advantage, I was intrigued by the observation that this rather simple tiling could be home to so many rather different shapes:

  • kites
  • squares (both a small and large version)
  • triangles
  • pentagons
  • hexagons.

Playing with these shapes was the driving force behind my quilt design.

Moving out of my color comfort zone

Before going deeper into the design process I would like to explain how I chose the fabrics for this quilt. Around the time that I had decided to make a quilt with a pentagonal tiling, I had also signed up for my first fabric challenge with the modern quilt guild: The 2019 Riley Blake Spring Fabric challenge. The selection of prints (see below) definitely didn’t resonate with me, but I thought this would be a good practice to push myself out of my color comfort zone (I typically gravitate toward deep or muted colors).

For this challenge one had to use at least 3 of the suggested 4 fabrics as well as any number of additional prints or solids from the same supplier. I thought that it wouldn’t be a real challenge if I didn’t use all challenge fabrics and/or added a lot of other fabrics…

After staring at the prints for a while I finally decided that I wanted to create an illusion of a light, semi-transparent dot pattern moving across the quilt by combining the “blossom prints” with matching solids. Further, I wanted to create some interesting secondary patterns by using the striped print strategically.

Dancing shapes

As mentioned above, when designing my quilt I was thinking of showing off the different patterns and shapes by letting them dance on the rigid grid. I also wanted movement, since that’s what I associate with spring and this quilt was made as part of the Riley Black spring fabric challenge. The name for the quilt, “Carnival in Cairo” is a play on the shapes dancing and dressing up and the name of the tiling.



The basic units for this quilt top are kites and squares. Three kites form a triangle and four of the small squares form a bigger square. Those triangles and squares then form the snub square tiling mentioned above.

I made a custom acrylic template for cutting out the kites. Because I wanted to get relatively precise “Y-seams” inside the “three-kite-triangles”, I decided to use a method called English Paper Piecing. It involves fixing the fabric to a paper template (I used small pieces of double sided tape) and then hand sewing the shapes together with a whip stitch. To generated the turquoise “ribbon”, some of the unit kite and square blocks were pieced themselves.

In the interest of time I decided to machine sew the square units as well as the seams between triangle and square blocks. The latter turned out to be quite a challenge as there are many points where 5 blocks meet.

Imprecisions during earlier steps really started to escalate and it took me forever to piece the top… Somehow I still managed to get a relatively flat quilt top assembled, albeit with some irregularities in the individual blocks.

Quilting and binding

I kept the quilting relatively simple with the goal to mostly emphasize some of the more subtle design elements and give a bit more interest to the flat dark blue shapes.

With the binding I decided to be more playful by extending the turquoise ribbon further. Going along all those corners made the binding a little challenging but it wasn’t too bad and I like the final shape.


Thanks to the deadline for the fabric challenge this quilt was actually finished quite quickly within just two months. Despite my initial struggle with the fabrics, I love the end product. There is something extremely satisfying about turning a virtual design into reality and the finished quilt does capture the energy I wanted it to have. This more then made up for the disappointment of my quilt not making it amongst the winners of the challenge 🙂

I have since made a second, rather different design based on the same tiling, which I hopefully get time to work on next year. This one is going to feature a more Hannah-like color scheme: terra-cotta, deep purple and petrol. The working title is “All eyes on you“.

3 thoughts on “Carnival in Cairo Quilt

  1. rebeca says:

    Dr H.

    A great write up piece..full of detail…with English paper piecing included. You should continue with this blog…..I discovered you on Instagram. Your quilt turned out great!! And who cares if you didn’t make the winners list… it for yourself…..your passion…eventually I am sure the accolades will come.


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